Ilsa, The Wicked Warden Review
Despite the outrageous attempts at drawing in some intellectual content to his work - jazz musician, writer, enemy of the Catholic Church, colleague of Orson Welles on an adaptation of Falstaff - Jess (Jesus) Franco is much better known for a collection of dreadful little shockers made during the seventies and eighties, of which this is one of a run of four women-in-prisons movies.
Ilsa, The Wicked Warden stars Dyanne Thorne, the ruler of a South American clinic, where women are sent, ostensibly to be cured but who are actually raped and tortured and where the guards film snuff movies when the patients are no longer of any use. Whilst investigating the disappearance of her sister, Abbie (Tania Busselier) requests that she be held within the clinic, believing that Ilsa was connected...
Except that Ilsa, The Wicked Warden isn't actually an Ilsa movie at all, having been written and first released as Greta: Haus Ohne Männer and only being rewritten and dubbed as an Ilsa movie for the English-speaking market. Elsewhere, Ilsa, The Wicked Warden is still known as a Greta movie but following the Video Nasties scare of the early-eighties, the Ilsa name means much more than Greta, namely lots of communal showers, naked catfights, lesbian sex in the cells and Ilsa having her favourite inmate, on whom she lays a kind of love that you just don't get asked about in dating agencies. So long as it keeps on delivering, Ilsa, The Wicked Warden is grimly entertaining, shot with a bleak, lingering eye on the naked bodies of aging actresses and an constant edging towards another act of violence including cannibalism, rape, murder, acid injections and Ilsa's whipping of her patients.
But of course, the problem with movies like Ilsa, The Wicked Warden and of the many other films banned under the Video Recordings Act, is that twenty years after the media outcry, they now appear restrained in their depiction of sex and violence. Showing little that can't be seen for free on the Internet, be it at websites like rotten.com or on newsgroups like alt.tasteless, Ilsa, The Wicked Warden is decidedly tame and avoids showing anything particularly nasty. Even the scene in which Dyanne Thorne pierces Lina Romay's breasts with needles is restrained, with the camera cutting away from the actual violence to show the reaction on Romay's face, meaning that Ilsa, The Wicked Warden shows relatively little in that scene that has not also been shown on television documentaries on acupuncture, aside from the moment when Thorne and Romay press their breasts together.
In keeping with Dyanne Thorne's habit of appearing at conventions, where fans of the Ilsa series, assuming that such people do exist, are surprised at how pleasant she is, the entire film is performed with only a little more villainy than David Croft's 'Allo 'Allo, with Thorne sporting such an outrageous accent as to suggest that Ilsa is either well travelled and susceptible to a new accent or is incapable of holding on to just the one. However, despite Thorne's success in playing violent, sexually demanding psychopaths, Lina Romay has the better role, looking on blankly as she forces Abbie to lick her clean after complaining of food poisoning whilst sat on the toilet or as the inmates finally lead a revolt. With Franco doing little but watching impassively through the camera, it's up to his actresses to bring life to the film but, as has been noted in his other films, it is only by the presence of Lina Romay, Maria Rohm and other actresses favoured by Franco that his films are as popular as they are.
Ilsa, The Wicked Warden has been anamorphically transferred in 1.66:1 and looks acceptable if a little grainy and flat, though much of these criticisms are better directed at Jess Franco than the production of the DVD. Even his friends have admitted that Franco was not a terribly competent director, though he does reduce the number of times he overuses a zoom lens, which is something that plagues many of Franco's other films.
In terms of the picture quality, some work has clearly been carried out on the film and whilst most of the film does look cleaner than it should, there are a small number of scenes in which film looks to have been brought in from poor quality prints or possibly even video to restore the film to its original length.
Given this is an Anchor Bay release, one expects there to be a DTS 5.1 Surround audio track so it's surprising when there is only the option of a 1.0 Mono English or German soundtrack.
The film has, however, been supplied with English subtitles that are well worth reading if only for showing that a completely different script was written for the German-language version of this film than for the dubbed English-language translation. Taking just one line, said by the guards during Abby's shower, the English dub is spoken as , "The pubic nest's moving 'cos of the chlorine in the water" whereas the subtitled German version is translated as, "They have an insurmountable aversion to chlorinated water." Whilst it's possible that CIC did not consider English speakers capable of understanding a word like 'insurmountable', the subtitles are worth at least one read as they often point to this being a slightly smarter movie than the English dub would suggest.
The list of bonus features included on this DVD release of Ilsa, The Wicked Warden are:
Production Stills: Twenty-five still images, taken from the film, have been included on this DVD release.
Cast & Crew: Filmographies and biographies are available for actresses Dyanne Thorne, Lina Romay and Tania Busselier, producer Erwin Dietrich and director Jess Franco.
The Jess Franco Collection: This short bonus feature is a four-page summary of the films included in Anchor Bay's boxset of the films of Jess Franco
Interviews (13m09s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Both Erwin Dietrich and Jess Franco are interviewed for this feature, with Dietrich proving to be a talkative interviewee and honest on the making of Ilsa, The Wicked Warden/Greta: Haus Ohne Männer.
These interviews were conducted in German with both English subtitles and an English dub available.
Trailer (2m04s, 1.66:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Showing the dreadful picture quality that would otherwise have been used, this is a German-language trailer for Greta: Haus Ohne Männer that summarises much of the action but which concentrates on the nudity over the violence.
DVD Restoration Feature (16m49s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Despite this bonus feature being included here, it's assumed that it appears on each disc in The Jess Franco Collection given that it's directly related to Franco's version of Jack The Ripper starring Klaus Kinski, than Ilsa, The Wicked Warden.
Despite being slightly too young to have seen any significant change in my viewing habits due to the VRA, with the exception of Basket Case, The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the controversy surrounding Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS passed me by completely. Yet the shelves of my local video store groaned under the weight of such films, legal or illegal and no matter the introduction of the VRA, I Spit On Your Grave could still be found if the right question was put.
Ilsa, The Wicked Warden now seems tame and whilst this may have been cut over time, there does not appear to have be any awkward cuts to the film as presented on this DVD, with Franco favouring moving away from the action than lingering on it. As such, whilst still grim and humourless, this is much less offensive than it could have and, like watching Emmanualle some three decades after its release, it's difficult to feel disgusted by Ilsa, The Wicked Warden any more when it's much easier to feel nostalgic for the days when luridly titled straight-to-video releases were rented for £1.50 a night with the promise of cheap thrills in women's prisons.